So what’s the best way to learn web design? How do you decide what’s important, what you don’t need to learn yet, and maybe what you don’t need to know at all?
Let’s say you’d like to started with web design. Why learn web design at home? Maybe to make your own site (for fun or profit), or maybe you’d like to create web sites for other people – perhaps even professionally.Â You may want to watch this video about how learning web design at home with my course changed Sarah’s life. See her site here. She is nowÂ independent, she was able to quit her day job and runs her own web design business.
The problem is, it would take more than a lifetime to learn everything there is to learn! You simply can’t know it all, and you can’t learn a fraction if it in time to start doing something useful.
In this post, I’ll summarise the critical elements you need to learn in web design, and look at some of the ways you can go about finding out more.
1) What Web Design Skills You Should Learn
What skills will help you make web sites that actually work?
Here’s my list of the most important web design skills that anyone who wants to make good web sites should at least try to learn:
- Branding & positioning
- Traffic generation
- Information architecture
- Graphic design
- Accessibility & usability
Web design is marketing, which is the process of matching markets to propositions. The more effectively you do that, the more effective your web design will be.
Designing web pages without marketing is just graphic design, and that’s OK, but if you want to make web sites that are really effective (instead of just pretty) graphic design is not enough on its own.
If nobody visits your web site, or people visit but don’t find what they want, how can the web site be really successful?
Advertising, email marketing and search marketing are all interwoven with your web site, and they should all be viewed as part of the marketing mix. Web design is not separate.
I believe that learning and applying the simple, fundamental principles of marketing is critical for effective web design.
- In my opinion, the best general book on practical marketing is Drayton Bird’s “Commonsense Direct & Digital Marketing”
Branding & Positioning
Branding (and its cousin Positioning) is the process of choosing what you want your communication to say about you (your product, or your client – whatever the web site is about).
A brand can either be accidental or deliberate. A conscious, focused brand creates a strong impression that communicates clearly what’s special about your site, gets into people’s imagination, and helps them to distinguish your offering from all the other zillions of choices out there.
There’s no point being just one more web site that looks the same, sounds the same, and is just as ineffective as everything else in your market sector.
A strong brand is the essential aspect that every web site needs in order to give people a reason to engage, which ultimately leads to their taking action.
The good news is, branding is quite easy. The bad news is, not enough people really understand what it is. They make it too complex, confuse it with a snazzy logo, or pretend it’s not there or not important. It is really important!
If you’re going to make a powerful web site – for yourself or for anyone else – it should be built around a clear identity. It should project a personality that your visitors can connect to. And that’s part of the job of a web designer.
If nobody visits your web site, it can’t succeed, no matter how wonderful it may be.
To be successful, a web site should attract the right number of the right visitors, and then it needs to convert those visitors into friends or customers.
The way a web site is built, its content, its production standards – so many aspects impact its ability to attract traffic.
If your site doesn’t feature on the first page of search results for a range of terms, it won’t be getting a fraction of the traffic it could (the first page gets 99% of the clicks).
You cannot leave it to an afterthought, or to an external SEO consultant. It’s much better to build a site from the ground up to be targeted at the right market, and ensure it’s optimised to be search engine-friendly. A designer who knows how to do this will be far more successful, and far more valuable.
Information architecture is a posh way of saying building sites that are easy to navigate. And it’s more than that.
A good web designer is responsible for the whole experience that people have on your web site. Helping them find their way around is crucial to that experience.
Plus, the way you construct a site has a bit impact on its ability to compete for your target search terms, and it’s even more crucial for converting prospects to customers, as I explain in depth in my new book (“Convert!” ~ released in January 2011).
Graphic design covers page layout, use of imagery, colour, styling, typography, iconography, ease of navigation… It’s what people first think of when you say “web design” and it is important.
For my latest book, I set out to find out what design features had the biggest impact on a web site’s conversion rates. Over two years, I researched and ran conversion tests on dozens of web sites. What I discovered was certainly a surprise to me.
You see, visual design is important, but not nearly as important as we designers like to think! It matters that a web page is easy to use, easy to understand, and it should also look appropriate for its message and its audience, but the difference between good-enough design and jaw-dropping great design doesn’t really show in quantifiable business results.
Of course, your graphic design should be good, and it should definitely not spoil the user experience. But don’t ignore all these other vital aspects of successful Design (with a big “D”) in the search for beautiful graphics.
Web page production is the process of turning your graphical design into a living, working web site. It incorporates HTML (for content and structure) and CSS (for visual styling), but it can make quite a big difference to success.
A well-produced web site will be easier and quicker to build than a shoddy one. It will also be easier, quicker, and cheaper to edit the site if and when the design changes.
Good production will naturally transfer well to other user agents, like mobile browsers, be better for visitors with disabilities, which means more people can interact with your site, and it will also be friendlier for search engines.
It’s very, very important! Plus, understanding how web pages are put together helps you know what’s possible, and what can be done most cost-effectively (which is always helpful).
Accessibility & Usability
The higher the percentage of your target audience that can use your web site, the more your web site will be used.
Web usability is simply the discipline of testing how easy it is to achieve what you want on a site, and accessibility is the discipline of making your site usable by everyone – regardless of disability.
Sure, there are legal requirements in many parts of the world to make web sites accessible to as many people as possible, but it’s also good manners, and good business sense!
Anyone who creates web pages should be familiar with the principles of usability and accessibility.
You see, when we talk about “disability” that doesn’t just mean people with severe visual impairments. It includes those with slightly impaired vision (a large minority, or even a majority, depending on the make-up of your market!), people with motor impairments (try clicking the links on your fancy drop-down navigation with a shaky hand), and folks with colour-blindness (there are at least two very good reasons never to put red text on a green background).
As a bonus, when you make your web site readable by someone using a text-to-speech reader, you’re also making sure your content is accessible to search engine spiders too.
I’ve said before that I believe copywriting is the #1 skill in making effective web pages. Copywriting impacts everything that matters.
A web page should grab your attention with a clear, compelling hook. It should encourage you to keep moving forward, confident that you’re going to get what you want.
The language should be understandable by everyone, and it should convey the right personality. Navigation should be clear and unambiguous.
All of this comes under the remit of copywriting. A web designer who can’t yet write good copy is not a fully rounded designer.
You don’t need flower, poetic language to write great copy. In fact, it’s better to write as though you’re talking to a friend. There are plenty of little tricks you can apply to make your words more readable and more interesting, and most of them can be learned with practice.
A great designer should be a great copywriter and a great marketer… and we come full circle.
2) So What’s the Best Way to Learn All This Stuff?
The number one thing you need to get good at anything is – practice. There’s no substitute. You need to do this stuff over and over until it starts to get easier. Assuming that you’re going to put in months of practice, what sources will give you the best kick-start?
Blogs and Tutorials
There are hundreds of good tutorials on different aspects of web design, particularly graphics, production, accessibility, SEO, and usability.
In my experience, there’s not so much good stuff on the core principles of marketing and copywriting. The books I’ve suggested above are excellent.
Overall, I can strongly recommend:
- A List Apart: “For people who make websites”… Although it is not suited to beginners, maybe it should be “For people who already make websites”
- DZine blog: A good collection of tutorials for turning designs into working pages.
- WebsiteTips: A mixed bag.
- SmashingApps: Lots of varied resources. You could get lost here.
You could enrol in a “web design” course at a local college. However, I’d offer a word of caution.
Do not expect a college course to get close to the skills you really need to make great web sites, as they’re unlikely to be taught by successful practitioners with up-to-date skills.
They could be good for getting you over the first few hurdles, and if you need the confidence that could be perfect. Can also be quite affordable.
(If anyone runs a really good commercial-quality course, let me know and I’ll add a link here.)
Lynda.com has been around as long as I can remember and is generally very highly spoken of. Some of my own students have also dipped into Lynda’s video tutorials, and report that they’ve been useful, and from $25 per month, it’s good value too.
Pro Web Design Course
At the other end of the scale is my own “Pro Web Design Course” which is a full 6-month programme that takes you to the point where you’re not only a highly competent designer, marketer, and producer, but you’re also ready to start earning money professionally. This course costs $97 per month over 13 months (or $975 in a single payment) and features content you can’t find anywhere else. Only for the serious student
There are some great live seminars around. They tend to be expensive, but worth it if you want to stay at the cutting edge.
- SXSW and An Event Apart are invariably good, although not necessarily suitable for the beginner.
- For those who want the ultimate introduction to marketing online, I can’t recommend Ken McCarthy’s System Seminar highly enough, although sadly Ken may be running the very last System in 2011 (in the US)!
Quite a few experts run exclusive private groups for a limited number of students. There’s only one I can recommend personally…
- In SEO and search marketing, Mark Attwood is the person to follow. His “Inner Circle” is an exclusive group of business owners who get access to real, practical, cutting edge knowledge from someone who uses the techniques he teaches every day to drive his own businesses.
That’s pretty much my recommendations If you have more resources you can suggest, please email me and let me know.